Organized labor and the Democratic leadership of the House suffered a smashing defeat last night as the House rejected, 217-205, a bill to permit closing down a construction site even though a union's dispute is with only one subcontractor at the site.
The vote, the first piece of labor legislation of this session was a major victory for the Republican minority, business and the contractors, home-builders and realtors who launched a massive and successful lobbying effort against it.
Despite labor's concessions during the day - accepting a weaker substitute and then amendments to that bill that would have exempted all residential homebuilders from the legislation - labor could not muster the votes to pass the measure.
President Carter's reputation was not clearly involved in this effort since Carter had agreed to sign the bill but said he would not work for its passage.
However, for organized labor, which had poured a great deal of money and effore into congressional campaigns and which was exciting a great deal of support in this heavily Democratic Congress, it was a tremendous loss.
Earlier in the day, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neil Jr. accused labor of getting "careless" in its lobbying efforts in recent weeks and admitted yesterday's vote would be "close". But few congressional leaders were serious predicting the bill defeat.
While the issue is important mainly to building trade unions, organized labor had been considering the vote a test of how well it would do in getting other issues it is interested in through Congress, such as repeal of right-to-work legislation, revision of labor laws and universal voter registration.
Up until a few weeks ago, labor and congressional leaders of both parties thought it would be relatively easy to pass the common situs picketing bill, as it is called, in the heavily Democratic House.
But by yesterday the vote was considered very close, and by mid-afternoon labor had already agreed to a weaker bill passed in 1975, and had lose two key amendments on that weaker version.
O'Neil said he had "never seen" [WORD ILLEGIBLES] lobby as hard as the realtors, homebuilders and contraction had recently on the common situs pickering bill and accused labor of being overconfident and asleep at the switch.
"The national labor leaders had been working, but we needed the local labor leaders working," O'Neil said. He said that labor really only started working in the "the last couple of days."
"There are members on the other side who haven't had a call from labor. When you get careless along the line the train goes off the track," O'Neill said.
It was estimated that the Democrats would lose up to 75 of their 289 votes while Republicans would lose only 15 or so of their 144. (There are two House vacancies).
In order to win back some of the 26 Republicans who voted for common situs picketing when it was passed in 1975, lanor agreed to go back to the version of the bill passed by the House and Senate that year. that bill was later voted by President Ford.
That bill gave a greater exemption to residential homebuilders than this to residential homebuilders than this year's Education and Labor COmmittee version. The 1975 bill exemptes from common situs picketing homebuilder who did less than $9.5 million worth of building in a year. the current bill only exempted homebuilder building less than five units a year and less than 20 in the previous year.
However, labor failes to retain even the milder exemption, as the House adopted an amendment by Rep. John Erlenborn (R-III) exempting all builders of residences of three stories or less.
labor lost another important portion when the House accepted, 212 to 209, an amendment by Rep. John M. Ashbrrok (R-Ohio) that would prevent the striking construction unions from striking against workers at the site not directly involved in construction.
That means if building expansion is going on at a plant or hospital or other site, plant or hospital employees would not have to go out strike, nor would union suppliers be prevented from supplying the site.
Rep. Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) strongly opposed the amendments, saying it would prevent construction workers unions from having the same right other industrial unions have, that of appealing to any union employees at the site of a labor dispute.
One building and trade union lobbyist admitted it was necessary to take the 1975 version of the bill in order to pass th legislation.
That legislation passed by a 239-to-189 vote. An appeal was being made on the basis that this was the same bill they voted for last time and could support again.
But Republicans were also making a test case out of the bill, telling members stopped this one or coming close to it, could determine how the minority party fared against the rest of the Congress.
The issue was at least temporarily putting back together the Southern Democrat-Republican coalition that had been effective in the past but had faded in recent years as more liberal members were elected from the South.
However, many southern Democrats were feeling heavy pressure from their districts from those who opposed repealing the right-to-work laws that have drawn a lot of industry to the South.